President Obama offered an extended defense of his approach to countering violent extremism on Wednesday, saying those who have criticized his administration’s reluctance to single out the threat specifically posed by Muslim terrorists are in danger of offering extremists the kind of legitimacy they crave.
“Al Qaeda and ISIL and groups like it are desperate for legitimacy. They try to portray themselves as religious leaders…They propagate the notion that America, and the West generally, is at war with Islam. That’s how they recruit. That’s how they try to radicalize young people,” he said.
“We must never accept the premise that they put forward, because it is a lie, nor should we grant these terrorists the religious legitimacy that they seek,” he added. “They are not religious leaders, they are terrorists. And we are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”
Mr. Obama did acknowledge that al Qaeda and ISIL “do draw selectively from Islamic texts,” and he emphasized the importance of Muslim communities stepping up and speaking out against those who commit atrocities in the name of the faith. He urged Muslim leaders to “discredit the notion that our nations are at odds with Islam, that there’s an inevitable clash of nations.”
“Of course the terrorists do not speak for a billion Muslims who reject their hateful ideology,” he said. “They no more represent Islam than any madman who kills innocents in the name of God represents Christianity or Judaism or Buddhism or Hinduism. No religion is responsible for terrorism. People are responsible for violence and terrorism.”
The president also stressed the need for societies to address the social and economic grievances that extremists aim to exploit. “Poverty alone does not cause someone to become a terrorist, any more than poverty causes someone to become a criminal.” he said.
But poverty and political repression, Mr. Obama added, can provide extremist groups with a fertile recruiting ground. “When there are no outlets where people can express their grievances, resentments fester,” he said. “Terrorist groups are all too happy to step into a void.”
The president’s remarks, delivered on the second day of a three-day White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, came as extremist groups continue their bloody rampage in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and other parts of the Middle East — seizing territory, sowing unrest, brutalizing local populations, and inspiring deadly attacks across the globe.
The summit is drawing together experts from the government and the private sector, along with representatives from over 60 countries and various nongovernmental organizations, to discuss how to empower local communities to push back against violent extremists.
Plans for the summit were finalized last month in the wake of deadly shootings in France, Canada, and Australia that were inspired by radical Islamist groups. Another deadly shooting in Copenhagen last week, inspired by extremists with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), further underscored the threat posed by that group’s violent ideology.